Alice Walker 1991 Possessing the Secret of Joy, Vintage, London
ISBN 0-09-9224119-9


There are those who believe Black people possess the secret of joy and that it is this that will sustain them through any spiritual or moral or physical devastation. Alice Walker



Tomorrow morning I will face the firing squad for killing someone who, many years ago, killed me. But this is no more odd, perhaps, than that I am writing this letter to you a decade after your last effort to communicate with me, and well after your own death. It is that you are in the land of death that makes friendship with you so appealing. The people of Bali, your uncle Mzee told us, think heaven is exactly like Bali. They like Ball, and so have no anxiety about dying. But if heaven is like Olinka, or even like America, there is much to be anxious about. I write to you because I will want a friend there in heaven, someone who has seriously thought about me. I used to think my mother thought about me. But I identified with her suffering so completely it was I who always thought about, indeed was haunted by, her suffering; and because I believed she and I were one, I made the part of her that was me think about me. In truth, my mother was not equipped, there was not enough of her self left to her, to think about me. Or about my sister Dura, who bled to death after a botched circumcision, or about any of her other children. She had just sunk into her role of 'She Who Prepares the Lambs for Slaughter.' Is it cruel to say this? I feel it is cruel; but that it is only the cruelty of truth, speakng it, shouting it, that wifl save us now. If we do not, Africa may well be depopulated of black people in our grandchildren's lifetime, and the worldwide suffering of our children will continue to be our curse. In all my life it has been Adam and his sister, Olivia, who I believed thought most about me. He married me; she is my best friend. But do you know why my soul removed itself from Adam's reach? It is because I helped him start his progressive ministry - more progressive anyway than his father's and those of most preachers of color - in San Francisco, and I sat there in our church every Sunday for five years listening to Adam spread the word of Brotherly Love, which has its foundation in God's love of his son, Jesus Christ. I grew agitated each time he touched on the suffering of Jesus. For a long time my agitation confused me. I am a great lover of Jesus, and always have been. Still, I began to see how the constant focus on the suffering of Jesus alone excludes the suffering of others from one's view. And in my sixth year as a member of Adam's congregation, I knew I wanted my own suffering, the suffering of women and little girls, still cringing before the overpowering might and weapons of cnng the torturers, to be the subject of a sermon. Was woman herself not the tree of life? And was she not crucified? Not in some age no one even remembers, but right now, daily, in many lands on earth? One sermon, I begged him. One discussion with your followers about what was done to me.

He said the congregation would be embarrassed to discuss something so private and that, in any case, he would be ashamed to do so. I'd learned to appreciate the sanctuary of the Waverly by then. A place where there was a bench on the lawn, partly in the shade but mainly in the sun, just for me. I liked my Sunday momings there. Sedated. Calm. The grass was so green all around me, the sun so warm. The lake glittered in the distance. Out of a bag of crumbs from the kitchen, I fed the ducks. They circumcised women, little girls, in Jesus's time. Did he know? Did the subject anger or embarrass him? Did the early church erase the record? Jesus himself was circumcised; perhaps he thought only the cutting done to him was done to women, and therefore, since he survived, it was all right. Then there is Olivia. She has always thought so well of me. I find it impossible to disappoint her. I told her I did not kill the tsunga M'Lissa. I killed her all right. I placed a pillow over her face and lay across it for an hour. Her sad stories about her life caused me to lose my taste for slashing her. She had told me it was traditional for a well-appreciated tsunga to be murdered by someone she circumcised, then burned. I carried out what was expected of me. It is curious, is it not, that the traditional tribal society dealt so cleverly with its appreciation of the tsunga and its hatred of her. But of course the tsunga was to the traditional elders merely a witch they could control, an extension of their own dominating power.

Pierre has been such a gift to me. You would be proud of him. He has promised to continue to look after Benny when I am gone. Already he has taught him more than any of his teachers ever thought he could leam. I wish you could see Pierre - and perhaps you can, through one of the windows of heaven that looks exactly like a blade of grass, or a rose, or a grain of wheat - as he continues to untangle the threads of mystery that kept me enmeshed.

Chere Madame, he says, do you realize that the greatest curse in some African countries is not 'son of a bitch' but 'son of an uncircumcised mother-? No, I do not realize it, I say. Well, he says, it is a clue to something important! Who, for instance, were these early uncircumcised women? There is evidence that they were slaves. Slaves of other indigenous Africans and slaves of invading Arabs who swept down from the east and north. Originally bushwomen or women from the African rainforest. We know that these people, small, gentle, completely at one with their environment, liked, if you will forgive my frankness, elongated genitals. Or, put another way, they liked their genitals. So much so that they from birth stroking and 'pulling' on them. By the time they reached puberty, well, they had acquired what was to become known, at least among European anthropologists, as 'the Hottentot apron.' Enslaved among people who never touched their genitals if they could help it, having been taught such touching was a sin, these women with their generous labia and fat clitorises were considered monstrous. But what is less noted about these people, these women, is that in their own ancient societies they owned their bodies, including their volvas, and touched them as much as they liked. In short, Chere Madame Johnson, early African woman, the mother of womankind, was notoriously free!

This, Lisette, is your son. I still find him absurdly small for a man, but he is big in mind. On the day of my execution, he says, he will rededicate himself to his life's work: destroying for other women - and their men - the terrors of the dark tower. A tower you told him about. You and I will meet in heaven. I know this. Because through your son, to whom my suffering became a mys- tery into which he submerged himself, we have already met on earth. Now it occurs to me to wonder how you died. If I had been able truly to understand that you would die, and cease to write to me and to exist, I would have paid better attention to you before you died. However, I was not able to comprehend death except as something that had already happened to me. Dying now does not frighten me. The execution is to take place where this govemment has executed so many others, the soccer field. I will refuse the blindfold so that I can see far in all directions. I will concentrate on the beauty of one blue hill in the distance, and for me, that moment will be etemity. Blessed be. Tashi Evelyn Johnson Rebom, soon to be Deceased.


THE WOMEN ALONG the way have been warned they must not sing. Rockjawed men with machine guns stand facing them. But women will be women. Each woman standing beside the path holds a red-beribboned, closely swaddled baby in her arms, and as I pass, the bottom wrappings fall. The women then place the babies on their shoulders or on their heads, where they kick their naked legs, smile with pleasure, screech with terror, or occasionally wave. It is a protest and celebration the men threatening them do not even recognize. At the moment of crisis I realize that, because my hands are bound, I can not adjust my glasses, and therefore must tilt my head awkwardly in order to locate and focus on a blue hill. It is while I am distracted by this maneuver that I notice there is a blue hill rising above and just behind the women and their naked-bottomed little girls, who now stand in rows fifty feet in front of me. In front of them kneels my little band of intent faces. Mbati is unfurling a banner, quickly, before the soldiers can stop her (most of them illiterate, and so their response is slow). All of them - Adam, Olivia, Benny, Pierre, Raye, Mbati - hold it firmly and stretch it wide.

RESISTANCE IS THE SECRET OF JOY! it says in huge block letters. there is a roar as if the world cracked open and I flew inside. I am no more. And satisfied.


It is estimated that from ninety to one hundred million women and girls living today in African, Far Eastern and Middle Eastem countries have been genitally mutilated. Recent articles in the media have reported on the growing practice of 'female circumcision' in the United States and Europe, among immigrants from countries where it is part of the culture. Two excellent books on the subject of genital mutilation are: Woman Why Do You Weep?, by Asma el Dareer (London: Zed Press, 1982), and Prisoners of Ritual. An Odyssey into Female Genital Circumcision in Africa, by Hanny Lightfoot-Klein (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 1989). For a look at how genital mutilation was practiced in the nineteenth-century United States, there is G. J. Barker-Benfield's book The Horrors of the Half Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Harper & Row, I976). Though obviously connected, Possessing the Secret of Joy is not a sequel to either The Color Purple or The Temple of My Familiar. Because it is not, I have claimed the storyteller's prerogative to recast or slightly change events alluded to or described in the earlier books, in order to emphasize and enhance the meanings of the present tale. Like The Temple of My Familiar, it is a return to the original world of The Color Purple only to pick up those characters and events that refused to leave my mind. Or my spirit. Tashi, who appears briefly in The Color Purple and again in The Temple of My Familiar, stayed with me, uncommonly tenacious, through the writing of both books, and led me finally to conclude she needed, and deserved, a book of her own. She also appeared to me in the flesh. During the filming of The Color Purple, a co able effort was made to hire Africans to act the African roles. The young woman who played Tashi, who has barely a moment on the screen, was an African from Kenya: very beautiful, graceful and poised. Seeing her brought the Tashi of my book vividly to mind, as I was reminded that in Kenya, even as this young woman was being flown to Los Angeles to act in the film, little girls were being forced under the shards of unwashed glass, tin-can tops, rusty razors and dufl knives of traditional circumcisers, whom I've named tsungas. Indeed, in 1982, the year The Color Purple was published, fourteen chil- dren died in Kenya from the effects of genital mutilation. It was only then that the president of the country banned it. It is still clandestinely practiced in Kenya, as it is still practiced, openly, in many other African countries. Tsunga, like many of my 'African' words, is made up. Perhaps it, and the other words I use, are from an African language I used to know, now tossed up by my unconscious. I do not know from what part of Africa my African ancestors came, and so I claim the continent. I suppose I have created Olinka as my village and the Olinkans as one of my ancient, ancestral tribal peoples. Certainly I recognize Tashi as my sister. A portion of the royalties from this book will be used to educate women and girls, men and boys, about the hazardous effects of genital mutilation, not simply on the health and happiness of individuals, but on the whole society in which it is practiced, and the world. Mbele Ache.

Alice Walker Costa Careyes, Mexico Mendocino County, California January-December, 1991